‘Quite bizarre’

Bonnie Learning
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Labrador researcher says effects of climate change has hit Labrador twice as hard as rest of the world

Robert Way from Happy Valley-Goose Bay has just published an extensive study which indicates that climate change has accelerated in Labrador at double the rate of the rest of the world over the past century.

A Ph.D. student in the University of Ottawa’s geography department, Way’s study is published in the international journal “Theoretical and Applied Climatology.”

Way and his team of researchers compiled all available weather station data for Labrador covering the period 1881-2011.

The research notes that, over the past century, temperatures in Labrador have increased by a degree-and-one-half.

While that may not appear to be an alarming rate of change, Way says, it is when compared to the global rate – which runs at 0.8°C degrees over the past century.

Much of this change has occurred during the winter, Way says, with the temperature rising by an average two degrees.

A change in sea ice conditions and low snow coverage in recent years is impacting some northern coastal communities, he says, with people having trouble accessing hunting grounds and firewood areas.

“Some of these traditional activities that people rely on have been less reliable in the last few years and that’s largely associated with the general warming trend,” he says.

Labrador is unlike other areas, he says, as it’s heavily influenced by the ocean.

“Sometimes, there are very extreme events which occur that are not necessarily even linked to things like climate change but are just a combination of the long term warming by climate change and just natural weather variations.”

In 2010, the Labrador winter had an air temperature that was almost seven degrees above normal, said Way.

“That’s huge, and was certainly felt by all those living in the area. I came home to go snowmobiling but we had a temperature of above zero for two weeks in February. All the snow melted. And that was quite bizarre.”

Way says the research will help scientists better predict how climate change will affect Labradorians, and highlights the need to better understand not only the natural climate variations but also long term warming trends.

“We know, based on pure science and physics, that there will be substantial warming in Labrador over the next century because of climate change but being able to understand the other factors that contribute to the variations in Labrador’s climate will hopefully help us be better prepared for these extreme types of events.”

Such extreme weather can cause potential disasters such as the forest fires that raged in Labrador last summer.

Way suspects that climate change is one of the contributing factors in the decline of caribou herds in Labrador.

Because it’s expected that Labrador will continue to warm over the next couple of decades, Way says it’s important that people adapt to these changes.

When asked to give an example of how these changes can be made, he says permafrost thaw is having an impact on infrastructure in some Labrador communities.

Information provided by Way describes permafrost as ground which remains frozen for two consecutive years and underlies much of northern Canada. Permafrost conditions can have profound impacts on both human and terrestrial environments.

Thawing permafrost can also have substantial impacts on communities such as through infrastructure damage caused by ground heaving and subsidence.

“If you build on permafrost that has a lot of ice in it then the climate continues to warm and when that permafrost thaws, you’re going to have a building that’s unstable.”

The Labrador Permafrost Project

The Labrador Permafrost Project was launched in 2013 under the direction of Dr. Antonio Lewkowicz, President of the International Permafrost Association and Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Ottawa.

The research project is working on potential collaborations with the Labrador Innu Nation, the Nunatsiavut Government and the Nunatukavut Community Council.

Way says the main objective of the project is to document the current distribution of permafrost at high resolution across Labrador’s complex terrain where there is little baseline information, and to assess changes in the distribution and thickness of regional permafrost.

“The project aims to resolve this issue and inform better planning practices,” he says.

Way is of Inuit descent. His parents, Brenda and George Way, still live in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

He holds a Master of Science from Memorial University where he studied the climatic sensitivity of Torngat Mountain glaciers.

“One of the things I noticed when I was doing my masters on glaciers in the Torngat Mountains was that it’s only been in recent years that the flies were particularly bad there. Before that, there weren’t many flies at all. And that’s probably related to the recent warmer springs and warmer summers.”

Way’s research attracted international media attention in 2010 when Canadian Geographic followed him to Norway when he participated in the CryoEX program, an international exchange program established by the University of Ottawa and the University of Oslo.

According to the University of Ottawa’s website, the Canadian Geographic story titled “the cryosphere kid” gave a detailed account of Way’s research on glaciers and permafrost.

Seeing his work recently published in an international journal is satisfying, Way says, as it’s a project he worked on for over four years.

“This project took quite awhile to put together. When you spend that much time working on a project, there is a different level of satisfaction when you receive that e-mail telling you the study has been accepted (for publication).”

For more information on the topics covered by Way, visit http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00704-014-1248-2; http://rway019.wix.com/labrador-permafrost; and https://twitter.com/LabradorIce



Organizations: University of Ottawa, International Permafrost Association, Nunatukavut Community Council University of Oslo

Geographic location: Labrador, Happy Valley, Goose Bay Northern Canada Torngat Mountains Norway

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